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EDITORIAL

Rethinking policing: A tall order

It's not often the Slovak police ask the community for advice on how they should do their jobs, but The Slovak Spectator was requested to speak to about 30 senior police officers on June 1 as to how they could improve their media, and thus public, image.
True, the request didn't come from them, but from a team of American law enforcement experts who have been leading a week-long seminar in Bratislava with their Slovak colleagues on the 'community partnership' aspect of policing. Simply put, the meetings seem to be about reminding the police that they serve the public, and dissuading them from being yet another burden the average citizen has to bear.
Slovakia, like many countries still in 'transition' from Communism to democracy, has two fundamental problems with law enforcement. First, the formal body of laws that govern social behaviour are often inadequate to meet the needs of a modern society, and even when transgressors are caught, the prosecutors and courts are far too slow and sometimes too corrupt to ensure that justice is served. Second, the informal rules that support these laws - widespread agreement, for example, that stealing, bribery, tax evasion or drunk driving is wrong - are not universally accepted. Slovakia is a stew of different religious, ethnic and social groups that has been 'seasoned' by decades of fascism and then Communism. Agreeing on a common, unwritten approach to how we should all behave may take decades.

It's not often the Slovak police ask the community for advice on how they should do their jobs, but The Slovak Spectator was requested to speak to about 30 senior police officers on June 1 as to how they could improve their media, and thus public, image.

True, the request didn't come from them, but from a team of American law enforcement experts who have been leading a week-long seminar in Bratislava with their Slovak colleagues on the 'community partnership' aspect of policing. Simply put, the meetings seem to be about reminding the police that they serve the public, and dissuading them from being yet another burden the average citizen has to bear.

Slovakia, like many countries still in 'transition' from Communism to democracy, has two fundamental problems with law enforcement. First, the formal body of laws that govern social behaviour are often inadequate to meet the needs of a modern society, and even when transgressors are caught, the prosecutors and courts are far too slow and sometimes too corrupt to ensure that justice is served. Second, the informal rules that support these laws - widespread agreement, for example, that stealing, bribery, tax evasion or drunk driving is wrong - are not universally accepted. Slovakia is a stew of different religious, ethnic and social groups that has been 'seasoned' by decades of fascism and then Communism. Agreeing on a common, unwritten approach to how we should all behave may take decades.

The police are deeply distrusted in Slovakia. If what they're asking for now are cosmetic, image-enhancing ideas - presenting teddy bears to terminally ill children, for example - then they might as well save their energy. But if they really want to know how to improve the service they render to the public, here are a few ideas:

Formal law enforcement

Police work will always involve drug dealers, mafia rings, assault and murder. Even though such crimes affect relatively few citizens, it's important to know the work is still being done, and here the police are doing a good job of making spokespeople available to the press to get the information out.

But other, perhaps less 'important' laws, are regularly ignored by the police. For example, neither the police nor any other drivers stop for people on crosswalks, for all that the law says they must. Nor does anyone seem to obey speed signs in urban centres. For most people, these are the laws that matter. The list goes on - bicyclists riding dangerously on sidewalks past small children and elderly people carrying shopping bags, drunks on their way home from pubs micturating on private property, aggressive money changers hassling shoppers in front of the Tesco mall. The police are witnesses to all of this but do nothing, missing their chance to punish behaviour which the community finds most obnoxious.

Besides enforcing laws which are there to improve everyday life, the police could also more vocally protest holes in legislation that allow gross behaviour to go unpunished. For example, if a pervert exposes himself to your child, the most you can do, if you catch the person and prove his guilt, is to have him fined 100 Slovak crowns ($2) for a moral misdemeanour. For anyone raising children in Slovakia, this is a deeply troubling matter, and is far more likely to produce vengeful fathers striding after suspects with murder in their hearts than it is to stamp out a crime which every society has to deal with.

Informal rules

More than any other group in society, the police have a stake in making sure that people agree on the general principles that support the laws they enforce. It goes without saying the police should take effective measures to stop the bribery that is so ridiculously common between offenders and cops, and that they themselves should take the laws of the land seriously rather than as opportunities to add to their miserable pay cheques.

But on a deeper level, the police should be seen to support the values their society endorses. They should hire minorities, and promote women to top posts. They should appear approachable to the common citizen, even if that citizen's skin isn't white. They should stop smoking cigarettes in exclusive tete-a-tetes on the street, or har-harring over coffee in big groups in restaurants, or even guzzling mulled wine at Christmas bazaars, while the rest of society does its best to navigate the unpoliced streets. They should stop messing around at road checks, arraigning worthy citizens for shakedowns, and make their presence felt in places where crime is likely to occur.

They should, above all, be ready to take complaints, particularly regarding racially motivated violence, and show less interest in the residence permits of dark-skinned foreigners wanting to lay assault charges against white-skinned offenders.

Simply put, reluctance by the police to fulfil their basic function - to protect and serve - doesn't create a very good impression on those in need of either service or protection, which is most of us, at one time or another.

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